El Paso is the very avatar of the problems of the U.S.-Mexico border. The city — which lies just across the border from Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez — is the Texas prison gang Barrio Azteca’s home base. Barrio Azteca (BA) was born in the Texas prison system among prisoners from El Paso in the mid-1980s. The gang and the city of El Paso are intimately entwined in the drug trade and the violence associated with it. (Go here for Part Two and here for Part Three of this series.)
From its earliest days, El Paso has embodied the special relationship between Mexico and territory that was once Mexico, and the peculiarities of the old “Wild West.” This description is from the Online Handbook of Texas:
El Paso is at the far western tip of Texas, where New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua meet in a harsh desert environment around the slopes of Mount Franklin on the Rio Grande, which has often been compared to the Nile. As they approached the Rio Grande from the south, Spaniards in the sixteenth century viewed two mountain ranges rising out of the desert with a deep chasm between. This site they named El Paso del Norte (the Pass of the North), the future location of two border cities-Ciudad Juárez on the south or right bank of the Rio Grande, and El Paso, Texas, on the opposite side of the river. Since the sixteenth century the pass has been a continental crossroads; a north-south route along a historic camino real prevailed during the Spanish and Mexican periods, but traffic shifted to an east-west axis in the years following 1848, when the Rio Grande became an international boundary.
Most authorities agree that the arrival of the railroads in 1881 and 1882 was the single most significant event in El Paso history, as it transformed a sleepy, dusty little adobe village of several hundred inhabitants into a flourishing frontier community that became the county seat in 1883 and reached a population of more than 10,000 by 1890. As El Paso became a western boomtown, it also became “Six Shooter Capital” and “Sin City,” where scores of saloons, dance halls, gambling establishments, and houses of prostitution lined the main streets. At first the city fathers exploited the town’s evil reputation by permitting vice for a price, but in time the more farsighted began to insist that El Paso’s future might be in jeopardy if vice and crime were not brought under a measure of control. In the 1890s reform-minded citizens conducted a campaign to curb El Paso’s most visible forms of vice and lawlessness, and in 1905 the city finally enacted ordinances closing houses of gambling and prostitution.
Today, El Paso is struggling with its connections to the drug traffic, Mexican drug trafficking organizations, and U.S.-based gangs, including one of the most violent in the nation — BA.
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The private intelligence service Stratfor has an excellent report on Barrio Azteca. This excerpt from that report describes the gang’s formation and growth:
Spanish for “Aztec Neighborhood,” BA originated in a Texas state penitentiary in 1986, when five inmates from El Paso organized the group as a means of protection in the face of the often-brutal ethnic tensions within prisons. By the 1990s, BA had spread to other prisons and had established a strong presence on the streets of El Paso as its founding members served their terms and were released.
According to the El Paso Police Department:
Most of the original members were from the Second Ward (Segundo Barrio) area of El Paso, which is located in the south central region of the city. As the Aztecas grew in numbers, they became involved in the now standard activities of prison gangs: narcotics, extortion, assaults, murders, theft and intimidation. The Aztecas recruit directly from the pool of street gang members who have been arrested or imprisoned; however, [they] also form alliances and intimidate various street-level gangs who have not progressed to the prison system.
Here is how the U.S. Department of Justice’s Gang Unit sums up Barrio Azteca as it exists today:
The Barrio Azteca is one of the most violent prison gangs operating within the U.S. Barrio Azteca is a highly structured criminal entity and has an estimated membership of 2,000 persons. Most members of the Barrio Azteca are either Mexican nationals or Mexican-American males. Barrio Azteca is most active in the Southwestern region of the U.S., primarily in federal, state and local correctional facilities in Texas, as well as on the outside in communities located in Southwestern Texas and Southeastern New Mexico. Barrio Azteca’s main source of income is derived from the smuggling of heroin, powdered cocaine and marijuana from Mexico into the U.S. for distribution both inside and outside the prison systems. Members of the Barrio Azteca often transport illicit drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border on behalf of DTOs. Barrio Azteca members are also involved in crimes such as alien smuggling, arson, assault, auto theft, burglary, extortion, intimidation, kidnapping, robbery and weapons violations.
The reach of prison gangs like BA outside of the walls is not unique. I write about the street gang connections and associated drug trafficking operations of two such gangs — the Mexican Mafia in California and the Latin Kings in Chicago — in my forthcoming book from the University of Michigan Press (No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement).
Simply put, prison gangs control offender life inside the walls. Any street gang, or individual renegade gangster, who bucks the authority of the relevant prison gang will be “green-lighted” — targeted for punishment, which often means death. Originally, members of Latino street gangs learned that they could and would be whacked inside prison if they did not cooperate. Only a few street gangs still operate independently in California, for example. And prison gangs now assign hits outside of the prison walls to members of street gang affiliates or to made members of the prison gang after their release from confinement.
Here is an overview of the relationship between Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) and U.S. street and outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMGs), from the National Drug Intelligence Center’s National Drug Threat Assessment 2009 :
Although gangs do not appear to be part of any formal Mexican DTO structure, several Mexican DTOs use U.S.-based gangs to smuggle and distribute drugs, collect drug proceeds, and act as enforcers. Mexican DTOs’ use of gang members for these illegal activities insulates DTO cell members from law enforcement detection. Members of most Mexican Cartels–Sinaloa, Gulf, Juárez, and Tijuana)–maintain working relationships with many street gangs and OMGs…Most gang-related criminal activity along the U.S.-Mexico border occurs in South Texas and California… Street and prison gangs… transport and distribute illicit drugs throughout the South Texas area. Some of these gangs have established associate gangs or chapters in border cities in Mexico…
Barrio Azteca fits this pattern. (Its counterpart on the Mexican side of the border is known as the Aztecas.)
In subsequent posts, Fairly Civil will examine in more detail the specific structure and operations of the U.S.-based Barrio Azteca gang.